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Most people who make their own fermented foods — preserved products such as sauerkraut that contain live bacteria — fall into it by accident.

But as they start to do more research, they discover an amazing world of ancient foodstuffs boasting all kinds of extra benefits, from complex flavors to improved digestion and health.

"By eating fermented foods, we increase the biodiversity of the flora in our intestines," said Jeff Cox of Kenwood, author of the new book "The Essential Book of Fermentation." "When you have a constant flood of good guys, the bad guys can't get a hold."

Jennifer Harris, who organized the Farm to Fermentation Festival last weekend in Santa Rosa, said it's an exciting time to be sharing her fascination with fermented foods with others.

"People are slowly getting more comfortable with it," she said. "And they're starting to think of bacteria as sexy, like a glass of red wine."

While the popular kombucha (fermented tea drink) can be found across the country, The Shed in Healdsburg may be the first in the nation to offer a "fermentation bar," showcasing kombuchas and hard ciders as well as tasty "shrubs" — drinks made with sweet-sour vinegar syrups.

"I think we're a little ahead of the curve here in Sonoma County," said Mary Karlin of Petaluma, whose latest cookbook, "Mastering Fermentation," is due out Tuesday. "Wild yeasted bread has been going for 15 years or so. Then cheese became the new bread, and now kimchi (Korean sauerkraut) is the new cheese."

Karlin, who teaches cooking classes all over the Bay Area, starts her students off with some of the more popular and accessible fermented foods.

"At The Fork in Point Reyes, we do fermented dairy," she said of the farmstead center in West Marin. "So we do cultured butter; creme fraiche, which is easy; cream cheese; and dairy kefir (a yogurt-like, fermented-milk drink).

Like many health seekers, Karlin has made the sour, effervescent kombucha part of her daily routine.

"It's one of those things I cannot live without now," she said. "I drink a little bit in the morning, and a little bit throughout the day."

Karlin suggests making pickles or shrubs if you are new to the culture club.

"I'm crazy about the shrubs," she said. "Because they are made with vinegar, people find them standoffish. But you have to taste it to understand."

One of her favorite shrubs combines the refreshing flavors of ginger and mint. She makes it with raw apple-cider vinegar, but any raw vinegar (with live bacteria) will work.

"You macerate the very ripe fruit in the vinegar," she said. "I leave it out for 12 hours. ... It's more fizzy."

Cox's curiosity about fermented foods was first piqued by his interest in organic gardening. (He was an editor at Organic Gardening magazine in the 1970s and now writes restaurant reviews for The Press Democrat.)

After hearing Cox give a talk in the 1980s comparing plant-root hairs with the hair-like villi of the human intestine, author Wendell Berry suggested he write a book.

Decades later, Cox has finally published that book, which explains the science behind fermentation; delves into the worlds of bread, cheese and wine; and provides recipes for do-it-yourselfers.

As part of his daily routine, Cox drinks a tangy, dairy kefir he makes from a "SCOBY," which stands for "symbiotic combination of bacteria and yeast."

"The SCOBY is not one thing," he said. "It's 30 or more kinds of microbes that work together."

After drinking the kefir, he puts some of the curds back into a jar, adds more raw milk from Oliver's Market, then puts the jar back into the kitchen cabinet.

"When I first started making kefir, I made a blackberry syrup and put a couple of tablespoons into it," he said. "Then I decided I liked the taste of kefir by itself."

Harris, who teaches at Relish Culinary Adventures in Healdsburg and leads a monthly fermentation group in Santa Rosa, suggests novices start by making sauerkraut in a half-gallon Mason jar.

"People have a 99 percent success rate," she said. "And if for some reason you don't stick with it, you've only wasted $2."

While Karlin adds sauerkraut brine to salsa and guacamole, Harris bakes sauerkraut into corn muffins.

"Once you start feeling good, you look for an opportunity to add it to every dish," Harris said.

--

This recipe is from Mary Karlin's new book, "Mastering Fermentation."

"Shrubs date back to colonial America," she writes. "Use these amazing sweet-sour syrups to make cocktails, sodas and to flavor Water Kefir or even Kombucha. They also make great vinaigrettes."

<strong>Ginger-Mint Shrub</strong>

<em>Makes about 1? cups</em>

1/2 cup thinly sliced fresh ginger

1/2 cup packed fresh mint leaves

3/4 cup raw, unfiltered apple cider vinegar

1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice

1/2 cup raw unrefined cane sugar

Place the ginger and mint leaves in a glass jar; bruise them to release some of the juices. Add the vinegar, close the jar tightly, and shake vigorously for 10 seconds. Replace the lid with cheesecloth. Securely attach a layer of cheesecloth over the opening and leave at room temperature for 12 hours or overnight.

Replace the cheesecloth with the lid, secure tightly, and repeat the vigorous shaking daily for 1 week. Strain out the ginger and mint and stir in the lime juice and sugar until dissolved. Bottle, add a sprig of mint, close tightly, and shake vigorously for 10 seconds. Refrigerate for 7 days before using. Give the bottle a vigorous shake every day for that week. Refrigerate after opening. Syrup will last for up to 4 months.

To create a refreshing beverage, start with a ratio of 5-to-1 water (flat or sparkling) to shrub and adjust as your taste dictates.

--

This recipe is from Jeff Cox's "The Essential Book of Fermentation."

"Jennifer Harris, my original kim chi teacher, posted this recipe for her Facebook friends to try," he writes. "It combines beans, vegetables in the kim chi, and rice flour for a non-meat source of good protein, although a half cup of cooked ground pork could be added to give the pancakes a flavor boost. The dipping sauce is powerfully salty, so you might consider making a sweet and sour sauce (equal parts simple syrup and rice vinegar with a squeeze of lime juice) instead. Also, unless the kim chi has some strong spicy heat from chile peppers, the pancakes will be rather bland. You can spoon sriracha or other hot sauce on the pancakes to enliven them, but if the kim chi is spicy, that'll make a more integrated flavor and overcome the blandness. Don't overcook to dark brown —these are best when golden brown."

<strong>Korean Mung Bean and Kim Chi Pancakes (Nokdu Bindaetteok)</strong>

<em> Makes 4 6-inch pancakes</em>

<strong>For the batter:</strong>

1 cup split dry mung beans

1 2/3 cups water

1/2 cup rice flour

3/4 cup fermented kim chi (preferably spicy)

—Cooking oil, such as canola

<strong>For the dipping sauce:</strong>

2 parts organic tamari

1 part rice vinegar

1/2 teaspoon sesame seeds

First, make the dipping sauce, cover, and refrigerate. Soak the mung beans overnight, until they are soft.

Transfer the beans and 3 tablespoons of the soaking liquid to a blender or food processor and whiz until they form a smooth paste.

Add one-third of a cup of rice flour to the paste and blend again. If the batter seems too thin, add the rest of the rice flour. If too thick, add more soaking liquid. Aim for the texture of a typical pancake batter.

Fold the kim chi into the batter, mixing thoroughly.

Add a tablespoon of canola oil to a skillet and heat to medium. If it smokes, it's much too hot. Add ? cup of batter to the pan and cook 2-3 minutes, until the rim of the pancake is a deep, golden brown, then flip and cook 2-3 minutes on the other side. Serve hot with the dipping sauce.

<em>You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com.</em>